Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

World Cup Round of 16 tiers: Favorites, darkhorses & house money teams


The 2022 FIFA World Cup group stage is in the books, and we’re into the knockout rounds. Everything from here is “win or go home,” which means anything can happen.

But you know what usually happens in knockout tournaments like the World Cup? One of the favorites wins. True darkhorses like Croatia in 2018, Czechoslovakia in 1962 or Sweden in 1958 (who were hosting, it should be noted), have made it to the final, but none have ever lifted the cup.

This is less true in continental competitions – Greece 2004, Canada 2000, Denmark 1992 and Paraguay 1979 all say hi – but those are all extreme outliers.

Tier 1: Clear favorites

They won their first two group stage games, which put them into the knockouts basically without breaking a sweat. They missed Neymar for the final two of those games, but even so, they never really looked troubled until they fell asleep late vs. Cameroon.

Why they’ll win: They’re pretty clearly the best defensive team in the tournament. People kind of miss that fact because they’re Brazil.

Why they won’t: They’re infinitely less dangerous going forward without Neymar, which showed upon the scoreboard in those final two group games, during which they scored just a single goal. While he’s supposed to return for the knockouts, I saw that ankle and man, I don’t think he’s gonna be 100%.

They’re the defending champs and through two games I thought they were the best team in the tournament. They’ve definitely shaken off the cobwebs that were showing throughout 2022.

Why they’ll win: They probably have the second-best defense in the tournament and, in Kylian Mbappe, they’ve got the best attacking player as well. And also, all those injuries forced Didier Deschamps to work some new blood into the lineup, which has made for a more dynamic midfield.

Why they won’t: It’s just so damn hard to repeat. Nobody’s done it since Pele and Garrincha’s Brazil in 1962.

Tier 2: Obvious contenders

The reigning Copa America champs rode into town on a 36-game unbeaten streak, and I think folks over-corrected their assessment after that freak loss to Saudi Arabia.

Why they’ll win: They’ve got an excellent goalkeeper, a very good defense and the greatest player in the history of the sport. And for once, they also have a healthy Angel Di Maria.

Why they won’t: It felt a little panicky after that opening game loss as the Argies stopped doing so much of the stuff that made them so good the past three years and started just funneling everything through Messi and praying. That’s not what got them a trophy last summer.

They kind of cruised through a ho-hum group stage, getting out of third gear only for about a half-hour vs. Iran and maybe 20 minutes against Wales. And it was enough.

Why they’ll win: Sure feels like last year’s Euros, right? That team had a very similar group stage performance, then kicked it up into fifth gear for the knockouts and made it all the way to the final. One step further this year, maybe?

Why they won’t: They’re England.

They put together an unforgettable performance in the opener, 90 minutes that reminded everyone why the rest of the world has been game-planning against tiki-taka for the past 15 years.

Why they’ll win: They can get on the ball and just keep it away from literally anyone, which means 1) they’ll always get chances, and 2) they won’t give up many. It’s a good formula.

Why they won’t: They showed a surprising level of naivete in the group stage, and as last summer’s loss to Italy drove home: Just because they have the ball and dictate the terms of the game, does not mean they’re unbeatable.

Tier 3: Darkhorses who could make a run

They’ve got an elite recent pedigree, winning the 2019 UEFA Nations League and the 2016 Euros. Many of those players are still around, and they play a more attractive, expansive game.

Why they’ll win: Even with that more attractive, expansive approach – centered more around Bernardo Silva and Bruno Fernandes – they’re still one of the very best defensive teams in the field.

Why they won’t: They still cater too much to Cristiano Ronaldo, who poaches goals but is probably a net negative at this level at this stage of his career.

I’m putting them here more on reputation than on performance, as the Dutch were mostly unimpressive throughout the group stage. It says something about their mentality that they advanced anyway.

Why they’ll win: Defense, counters and set pieces. It would somehow feel fitting if the Dutch actually won their first World Cup title with the most German approach possible.

Why they won’t: They were legit bad in two of their three group-stage games. They leave the midfield open a ton and don’t create many high-quality chances.

This side’s not quite as good as the one that made it to the final in 2018, but they’re still very good, and they’ve done a nice job of integrating a new cadre of talent rather than just leaning on the old guard.

Why they’ll win: Their midfield, led by all-time great Luka Modric (who is defying Father Time more thoroughly than anyone) is probably the best in the tournament. He who controls the ball controls the game.

Why they won’t: Not enough scoring punch.

Tier 4: Here to break new ground

Gregg Berhalter said he wanted to change the way the world views US soccer, and judging by the glowing analytical deep dives coming from all corners, I’d say he’s done it. The US have been a joy to watch if you’re a tactics sicko (it me).

Why they’ll win: They’ve conceded two open play chances through three games, have one of the best goalkeepers in the tournament (yeah, I said it) and a team identity that allows them to play with complete clarity. Fun for sickos!

Why they won’t: They’re not creating chances at the rate they should and man, do they look ripe for the taking on set pieces.

Wins over Spain and Germany make this, by definition, the best World Cup performance in Japan’s history. No matter what happens from here on out, it’s a success.

Why they’ll win: They run more than anyone, rarely lose their shape and are completely comfortable playing against the ball. No one can call it beautiful, but it’s effective!

Why they won’t: As the loss to Costa Rica showed, if they’re not emptying the tanks every single second, they’re not good enough with the ball to break compact, resolute teams down.

They lost their best player – Sadio Mané – just before the tournament and were able to compensate via ruthless Route 1 soccer. It wasn’t pretty, but the best team in Africa’s not here to win style points.

Why they’ll win: Elite defense, a potentially elite goalkeeper (once Mendy got those first-game yips out of him) and a smart, hard-working midfield that covers every blade of grass. Plus they'll kill you on restarts. Team’s miserable to play against.

Why they won’t: Without Mané they just don’t have the kind of high-level attacking talent you need to brute force a win or two at this stage.

They got out of the group stage for the fourth time in the past five tournaments, which is a hell of a record. Still looking for that quinto partido on this stage, though it’s worth mentioning they made it to the quarters of last year’s Euros.

Why they’ll win: Any side that scores a goal as beautiful as Remo Freuler’s match-winner vs. Serbia is clearly favored by the Soccer Gods, who are not to be trifled with.

Why they won’t: Bad midfield turnovers and a weirdly gappy backline – which was not the case last summer or in qualifying, mind you – have characterized the Swiss in Qatar thus far. It's been a strange performance.

Tier 5: Playing with house money

Teams whose best players are their fullbacks are always super interesting to watch because they have to adjust so many things in midfield to get those fullbacks into position to be dangerous against good teams. And in the group stage for Morocco, it mostly worked!

Why they’ll win: Achraf Hakimi’s going to hit at least one big, right-to-left switch no matter who he’s lined up against. If the Atlas Lions can turn that into an early goal and control the game state, well… ask the Belgians how much fun it is to try to get back into the game at that point.

Why they won’t: The way they arrange their shape to get Hakimi and Noussair Mazraoui forward leaves their central midfield and center backs constantly scrambling. The best teams will take better advantage of that than Canada did.

The 10th straight World Cup appearance produced just the third trip to the knockout rounds for the Taegeuk Warriors. This is not precisely “just happy to be here” territory, but they are justifiably very happy to be here.

Why they’ll win: Everybody works, everybody presses and in Son Heung-Min they have a global superstar who can win a game single-handedly. There are worse formulae for tournament play.

Why they won’t: Teams with the above formula need to have excellent goalkeeping to actually win a trophy. South Korea don’t.

Out of the group stage for the first time since 1986! This great Polish generation, most of whom are in their early-to-mid 30s, finally delivered on at least part of their potential. Even if it came four years after most of us thought it would.

Why they’ll win: An experienced team with a legendary goalscorer and probably the best goalkeeper in the tournament thus far. That’s three important boxes checked.

Why they won’t: They weren’t particularly great, or even good in the group stage. And their knockout round adventure begins against France. Good luck!

Somehow the most ordinary team in the world made it out of the group and into the knockout rounds. Give them credit for knowing what they’re good at – defending deep as hell and hitting on the counter – and committing to it entirely.

Why they’ll win: Because God wants us to suffer.

Why they won’t: They had less than 40% possession in the group stage and were outshot 50-21. That’s minnow territory, and minnows don’t swim far in the knockouts.